Jay Rock, J. Cole, & What It Really Means to Go Mainstream

Should you hope for everyone to hear the good word of Jay Rock, understand that a solid Jeremih feature is one of the best ways to do so.
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Jay Rock, J. Cole, & What It Really Means to Go Mainstream

Jay Rock needed redemption. 

After the hostage negotiation spurred pre-order debacle and weak sales of 2015's 90059, Rock needed to come back with a sharp left hook. Three years later, with an album aptly entitled Redemption, Rock has made his formal re-entry into music. While the first arc of the album is the Los Angeles native at his finest, producing one dense street banger after another and summoning the harsh realities of his youth and gang life, by “Tap Out,” it’s clear Rock is making a partial radio play.

But Jay Rock’s foray into the mainstream is not inherently a bad thing, nor does it mean he’s erasing his identity. Rock is dedicated to himself, which is why we must understand the gloss of Redemption as a necessary play at longevity.

By all accounts, Jay Rock, 33, is the bedrock of Top Dawg Entertainment, and his content is indebted to the core and origins of the genre of hip-hop. His aggression, candor, storytelling, resilience on and off the mic, and disarming charisma make him a model rapper and a soldier of the game. Despite all that, the aural setting of Redemption is evidence enough that Jay Rock had something to prove, not to his fans nor to his peers, but to the whole of hip-hop, to everyone who wrote him off as simply TDE’s tough guy stuck in the past.

The second and third arcs of Redemption are thusly peppered with gussied-up attempts to sound of-the-moment—none of which are duds. While Rock is surrounded by chart-topping soundscapes—gummy synths and snappy drums, not a speck of dust to be found save for “ES Tales”—his writing and delivery remain explicitly his own, even when he slips into some endearing-at-best warbling.

While Jay Rock’s truth, a poignant look at the survival and sacrifice inherent in gang life, remains conducive to the core of hip-hop, his messages would have dissipated into a void had he not evolved. After the hit that was “King’s Dead” and the anthemic follow-up single, “WIN,” it’s safe to assume that, despite middling first-week sales projections, Jay Rock has doubled his reach. As we have learned time and time again, a good message is not enough; presentation is king.

When we peel back the pristine finish on Redemption, we find that even on the poppiest cuts ("Tap Out," "WIN"), Jay Rock is still rapping his ass off, still leaving a piece of himself for fans to dissect and appreciate. The viscera of “Broke +-” and the surmounting of trauma on “Redemption” do not lose their weight because “Rotation 112th” is an enjoyable but thematically off-kilter smooth jam. These songs are facilitative and savvy additions, not to mention it’s a pleasure to see a rapper with over a decade of experience still branching out.

If these pop tracks make you seize up and reject the entirety of the music, remember that pop is not a dirty word in itself. It is merely a form, which—when used appropriately—can do wonders for an artist’s career. Better yet, entering into the mainstream, with the right intentions, is a surefire way for your favorite artist to attain a level of security that begets the purest forms of expression. Should you hope for everyone to hear the good word of Jay Rock, understand that a solid Jeremih feature is one of the best ways to do so.

In a similar breath, J. Cole, who is incidentally featured on Redemption, was clamoring to be heard. While writing his fifth studio album, KOD, Cole felt a spirit moving through him, felt the content of the album was God-given. As we know, a man inspired would go to great lengths to get his message out to every available ear—so he did. Unlike Jay Rock, who was tasked with bringing himself to the main stage, proving he could run alongside his more famous label mates, and cementing his role thereafter, Cole’s mission was to refine his role as hip-hop’s benevolent older brother by way of mirroring.

Cole is a damned messenger, and he knows it. This is why he crafted KOD as a workaround. Consider the flows he deploys on “KOD,” “Kevin’s Heart,” and the OVO-bent of “The Cut Off.” Of course, these are welcome steps forward, but there’s a tactful and subversive element to Cole’s dabbling in trap and triplets. He’s bringing the fight to the very people he feels need his message most: young rappers on the come up who are engrossed in a damning drug culture. Cole knew that to stand a chance at delivering a pedantic message to a gang of kids who were predisposed to ignore him, he would have to outfit his words in a more attractive manner.

KOD, then, is an album of giving and taking, loans and payouts. What he borrows in form, Cole pays off by way of good intention. On paper, the notion that kids should not do drugs is difficult to argue against, but as we know, nothing exists on neutral grounds. That’s not to say that Cole’s message is unwelcome, but rather that the intended audience does not want to hear it from him specifically. The absence of objectivity, then, is what drove J. Cole to rap like a youngin from Florida and bemoan the practice of sliding into the DMs on Instagram. This is an “If I hear them, then they must hear me” mentality.

Critics and fans alike have called KOD J. Cole’s best-sounding album, if not his most accessible. Therein lies Cole’s motive for stepping into the mainstream. Regardless of character, on some level, everyone is striving towards an effortless life. KOD taps into that desire by way of serviceable pop structures. We can prove this further by looking at Cole’s guest feature on Redemption, a nuanced and leveling verse that by all merits should have found its home on KOD. Yet, by appearing on Jay Rock’s commercial reintroduction, Cole is effectively extending his KOD strategy and having it work in tandem with Rock’s own push towards grand scale recognition. Bringing the fight to them, twofold.

The influence and mainstream skews of KOD and Redemption are purposeful, yes, but neither record sounds contrived from a sonic standpoint. Neither J. Cole nor Jay Rock sounds any less convincing or genuine amidst these turns, which is why they are ultimately positioned to be successful. Whether or not they will succeed in being heard or redeemed in full is another conversation, but their motives are clear and admirable. A pivot to mainstream accessibility needn’t be detrimental or cause for panic; it’s a tool like any other.

Both Jay Rock and J. Cole know that growth is a necessity of music, and it’s the artists who are most quick on their feet that last the longest in the public eye. 

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